by William Peterson

The tension between the artistic traditions of realism and abstraction is nowhere more acute than in the art of George Fischer. Born in Chicago in 1956, he honed his natural drawing gifts by training at Chicago’s American Academy of Art, a conservative institution whose rigorous program is based in 19th-century realist practices. Fischer’s technical facility is unexcelled, and he became a master of still-life, landscape, and figurative studies. But the complacency of this approach bothered him. He made a break in the early 1990s, coinciding with his move to New Mexico, when he began to explore a more complex attitude toward imagery.

Jostling images and improvising associations more intuitively, he became a visual poet. Articles of clothing, household utensils, fancy decorated cakes and pies, children’s toys, and gardening implements were juxtaposed with natural twigs, roots, leaves, flowers, fruit, and vegetables in a private meditation on middle-class lifestyle and the cottage-garden presence of nature. Since he paints directly from his subjects, the arrangements were free-associational and yet painstakingly organized. Along the way, he began to re-evaluate his relationship to the larger tradition of the art of painting, and eventually he had to confront the legacy of formalist abstraction, which had been proscribed by his training. His engagement with the language of abstraction transformed his pictorial resources, expanding his vocabulary of visual forms as well as his painterly handling. The result is an extraordinary postmodernist hybrid, rich with possibilities.

Fischer has given the title Give and Take to one of his recent paintings. The phrase implies an exchange on equal terms, a lively dialogue. This is essentially how he works with the two conflicting languages of painting, handling them with equal potency and engaging them in a conversation. In the painting called Give and Take, for example, he incorporates many of his familiar subjects—a shirt, a pair of pants, flowers, the roots of a dried plant. But the shirt is split in two, with one half rendered in meticulous realism while the other half is a collaged piece of sheet metal, cut-out in the modernist mode as a flat silhouette and tacked to the picture surface. The flowers, instead of being natural, are based on artificial graphic sources—one is a decorative abstraction, like a wallpaper design; the other is based on the spew of roses issuing from the mouth of a nymph in Botticelli’s famous painting of Spring. The overall structure of Fischer’s painting is gridded into three large fields of luscious painterly abstraction, layered with textured scumbling and bold patterning, and held down in the lefthand corner with what appears to be a broad sweeping brushstroke, but is in fact a delicate and almost nnoticeable landscape.

Central to Fischer’s art, and implied in the title Give and Take, is the negotiating of opposites. An imagery of opposites runs thematically throughout his work—male and female, empty and full, presence and absence, generation and sterility, the natural and the man-made, the spiritual and the concrete. Some of his titles direct attention to these oppositions—Back and Forth; Revealed-Concealed; Vertical and Horizontal—while others only indicate the presence of opposing forces. Two of the latter—Uprooted (suggesting unexpected disengagement from an original grounding and a feeling of being set loose) and Diversion (turning aside from the mainstream, and providing recreation and entertainment for the mind)—could be naming some of the more subtle exchanges within his art’s evolution.

Fischer’s imagery is personal and hermetic. Its meaning is not one-dimmensional or easily decoded, but instead resonates within the poetry of his many juxtapositions. Set up as surrogates for the human figure, the pieces of clothing in Fischer’s paintings imply both human presence and its absence. Trousers or skirts often billow out stiffly as if they were inhabited, and yet they are own to be standing empty, like a vessel or a cup waiting to be filled. Fischer’s haunted clothing can sometimes seem strangely morbid, like taxidermy, and it brings to mind the "hollow men, the stuffed men," of T.S. Eliot’s poetry. Like Eliot’s poems, The Waste Land and The Hollow Men, with their collaged imagery and quotations, Fischer’s canvases are richly evocative and ecclectic. They also share with Eliot’s poetry an atmosphere of abandonment and vacancy and expectant waiting, fraught with Biblical overtones of longing for redemption. "This is the dead land / This is cactus land," writes Eliot, depicting a forsaken world of lost souls, leaning together like dummies and scarecrows whose "dried voices...are quiet and meaningless / As wind in dry grass / Or rats’ feet over broken glass / In our dry cellar." Similarly, the empty clothes in Fischer’s work are encountered together with dry stalks and sticks and bits of broken glass amidst garden rubble. And like Eliot’s insertion of parodied nursery rhymes ("Here we go round the prickly pear"), Fischer employs imagery from childhood—blocks and toys, birthday cakes and baby clothes, as well as decorative decals and wallpaper designs from the nursery—to recall the condition of lost innocence in a world now compromised and fallen. Perhaps the many references to laborious gardening in Fischer’s earlier works also point to the distance between our present world and that garden in the eastward of Eden, lost to us since our first ancestors ate the forbidden fruit and gained knowledge of good and evil.

In Fischer’s Give and Take #2 the open top of a pair of empty standing pants is split and joined to a transparent bucket, which stands next to a cactus plant and receives a shaft light that showers from above like a blessing. Ribbons of text on either side of the painting contain vital statistics, with a listing of births running up the lefthand border and deaths tracking down on the right. "The way up and the way down are one and the same," said Heraclitus, and the spiritual idea of ascending a turning staircase was an important image for Eliot in his poem Ash Wednesday. A spiral or helix is also one of the most frequently recurring elements in Fischer’s imagery. In his earlier works it appeared as a little whirlwind motif, a tangle of vines, or a kinking garden hose. Later, when he introduced an abstract graphic language into his work, the spiral was traced directly in the air, its spinning coils activating the space and sometimes encircling special pictorial features. Often the spiral is cropped, reducing it to no more than a bold abstract pattern of stripes in repeated sweeping arcs. In the almost completely abstract canvases called Infinity and Double Infinity, the cropped spiral thickens into broadly curving bands evocative of the infinity symbol’s double loop. And the spiral appears at the top of Into the Blue as a lowering vortex of dark stripes. So it’s worth noting that throughout Fischer’s work, what appears to be nothing more than an "abstract" device of repeated curving stripes is in fact a fragmented "depiction" of the coils of a spiral, and in this way Fischer continues to dramatize the tension between the two artistic languages, exposing the conventionality of both approaches.

Each of the two artistic systems has its own set of conventions and each is sustained by belief. Fischer first felt the tyranny of belief when he began to question the indoctrination of his academic training. He started writing the word "Believe" on his canvases, repeating it over and over like an insistent commandment or a mumbled mantra. Soon long ribbons of the repeated text were tracking across the surfaces of his paintings like relentless trails of diligent ants. Even the looping curves of the spiral are occasionally traced as "chains of belief," while similar written chains sometimes rain down from above and spill from one item to another in long trajectories of intercommunication. Perhaps these are shared beliefs. Or maybe they simply bounce off, with each hit left to quietly resonate within the larger spiritual dimension of Fischer’s paintings.

Note: This essay was included in the brochure for George Fischer's exhibition entitled "Give & Take" at the Gerald Peters Gallery in 2005


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